I have a particular affinity for this film, as it is set in the town where I lived for a long time - Bloomington, Indiana. Most people in Bloomington are basketball crazy; apart from this, perhaps the second most popular sport is bicycling, culminating at the end of the school year with the Little 500 bicycle race on campus (a bicycle version of the internationally-known Indianapolis 500 motor race, just 50 miles north). This is primary a campus event, with fraternities and a few other organisations fielding teams; there are also community teams, and always at least one team with the name 'cutter'.
The film is a piece of fiction not just in its plot but also in the details, but it is a good story. The primary character is Dave Stoller (played by Dennis Christoper), a recent high school graduate who isn't sure what to do with the rest of his life. He and his three friends Mike (a very young Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) had made a high school pact to 'waste their lives together' hanging out in the comfortable, small-town atmosphere of Bloomington. However, half the town is university, with all the ambitious, young people that such institutions bring. Dave is son of Raymond (Paul Dooley) and Evelyn (Barbara Barrie), a typical middle class working couple. Raymond makes his living as a used-car salesman, largely taking advantage of the supposedly-smarter college kids. Barbara is trying to put some romance back into their lives.
In his boredom, Dave becomes obsessed with two things - Italian culture and bicycle racing. He calls his father and mother 'papa' and 'mama', plays Italian opera (Caruso, etc.) endlessly, persuades his mother to add Italian cuisine to the home cooking; Dave's friends put up with him, as they have their own small struggles to deal with - Mike, in entering a stage in life where he's no longer the star quarterback of the school; Cyril, who can only think of the next way to disappoint his father (who delights in being understanding); and Moocher, unemployed and unambitious, but falling in love and planning to get married. The spend their time in a sort of dazed and confused state, without too much confusion due to lack of stimulation.
Dave realises there is more to life than hanging out on the downtown square in Bloomington. He begins impersonating an Italian exchange student, falls for a co-ed named Katherine (played by Robyn Douglass), and the juxtaposition of town and gown is set - Katherine is the girlfriend of a swim-team member, and Dave with his three friends have a confrontation with them on campus that leads the president of the university to step in, marking as the field of combat the hallowed bicycle race, the Little 500.
Dave, in his drive to be the Italian exchange student, has taken to idolising the soon-to-be-visiting Italian bicycle team of Cinzano, and become a great cyclist himself. Disappointed by the poor sportsmanship of that race, Dave is ready to give up racing, until his father Raymond, who had always been against his son's starry-eyed ambitions, sees the spark go out of Dave's life, and encourages him to join his friends in the newly-formed Cutter team, and run the race at the college.
The word 'cutter' is a derogatory term the college kids used to describe the townsfolk. Bloomington is situated in the midst of a huge natural deposit of limestone, some of which has been used in construction of buildings all over the world, including bridges in London, the Empire State Building, and massive public works projects in Asia. The college kids (the 'gown') look down on the cutters (the 'town'), and are intent on not letting them steal the victory in the race. The epic battle is set.
There were cameos in the film, including the then -actual president of the university, John Ryan. Extras for town and college scenes were hired from Bloomington, a few of whom I know and enjoy seeing again in their 25-year-old glory (one such person, Jennifer Mikel, sang at the wedding of a friend not too long ago). Those who know the geography of Bloomington watch the film and delight in editing that causes geographic problems - turning the corner on a bicycle and going down a street that is not connected to the one before; riding or driving down streets the wrong way on one-way streets. Most especially, they delight in seeing the town and university as it was. Much has changed in the 25 years since this film was made, and yet, much is the same.
The term 'cutter' didn't really come into use until this film - it was more or less invented for the story in this film. As Dave's father Raymond tells Dave at one point, Dave is not a cutter. Raymond was a cutter - he cut limetone in the quarries, but those days are gone. The campus is built of limestone, and it is time now for Dave take advantage of those buildings.
In the end, the hero does not get the girl, but does get a life, in a victory that goes beyond what any race could bring. (Dave wins some and he loses some; you'll have to see it for yourself to find out how this plays out, so I won't spoil it for you).
The film stands the test of time fairly well - the comedy and the drama still rings true.